DC may not be the next Silicon Valley, but not because of college recruiting

(As usual, all opinions are my own.)

I’m taking a break from talking about code to respond to an article in the Washington Post about how DC cannot be a serious tech hub without a top-tier Computer Science program. As a MIT CS grad who followed his fiancee (now married 15 years) down to Maryland, I feel like being next door to a CS program like the one I graduated from is somewhat overrated, and overlooks some of the other positives of being in the DC area.

First, after working with a variety of people over the last two decades, I’ve realized that no single university has a monopoly on smart people. That point was hammered home when I met someone at my first job who got into MIT but turned it down for College Park (a respectable program even if not top 10) to stay close to home and save money. With the cost of private universities becoming exorbitant, there will be talented engineers to be found in more and more places. In DC, there’s a sizable pool of engineers in the federal contracting space, and some of them may be looking for a change of scenery.

Second, to have a successful product or business, guys like me aren’t always enough. You need a mixture of people who are smart in different ways, not just people who are good with technology. You also need to figure out what problem to solve, and how to market your solution. And DC is a magnet for plenty of young and educated people in general, if not the premier destination for techies specifically. So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that DC has a niche in data analytics, because it requires the combination of both technical ability and deep experience in some other domain. (Speaking of diversity, recruiting from the same small set of university CS programs is partly blamed for the lack of diversity in the tech industry, but that’s another topic altogether.)

One other advantage for DC: the cost of living in the Bay Area is so high that it makes DC look affordable by comparison. When it comes to recruiting and retention, in DC you’re less likely to end up on the losing end of a bidding war with Google and Facebook.

DC may not ever be another Silicon Valley, but it’s not just because we don’t have an MIT or Stanford next door. Instead, I feel like it’s a simple feedback loop–Silicon Valley has an advantage because it’s already Silicon Valley, with all the infrastructure that goes with it (venture capital, lots of engineers already live there, a critical mass of established businesses that create new spin-offs), and everyone else isn’t. Universities are just one piece of that overall ecosystem. Just like New York and finance, or L.A. and movies.